Triangular Trade Across the Atlantic
The Atlantic slave trade formed one part of a three-legged international trade network known as triangular trade. This was a triangle-shaped series of Atlantic trade routes linking Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
Shipping People and Goods
Triangular trade worked in the following way. On the first leg, merchant ships brought European goods—including guns, cloth, and cash—to Africa. In Africa, the merchants traded these goods for slaves. On the second leg, known as the Middle Passage, the slaves were transported to the Americas. There, the enslaved Africans were exchanged for sugar, molasses, and other products manufactured at plantations owned by Europeans.
On the final leg, merchants carried sugar, molasses, cotton, and other American goods such as furs, salt fish, and rum made from molasses. These goods were shipped to Europe, where they were traded at a profit for the European commodities that merchants needed to return to Africa.
commodity—(kuh mahd uh tee) n. anything bought and sold
Industries and Cities Thrive
Triangular trade was immensely profitable for many people. Merchants grew wealthy. Even though there were risks such as losing ships at sea, the money to be made from valuable cargoes usually outweighed the risks. Certain industries that supported trade thrived. For example, a shipbuilding industry in New England grew to support the shipping industry. Other colonial industries, such as fishing, raising tobacco, and processing sugar, became hugely successful.
Thriving trade led to successful port cities. European cities such as Nantes, France, and Bristol, England, grew prosperous because of triangular trade. In North America, even newly settled towns such as Salem, Massachusetts, and Newport, Rhode Island, quickly grew into thriving cities. Even though few slaves were imported directly to the northern cities, the success of the port cities there was made possible by the Atlantic slave trade.
Horrors of the Middle Passage
To merchants, the Middle Passage was just one leg of triangular trade. For enslaved Africans, the Middle Passage was a horror.
The Trek to the Ships
The terrible journey began before the slave ships set sail. Most Africans were taken from inland villages. After they were enslaved, they were forced to march to coastal ports. Men, women, and children were bound with ropes and chains, often to one another, and forced to walk distances as long as a thousand miles. They might be forced to carry heavy loads, and often the men’s necks were encircled with thick iron bands.
Many captives died along the way. Others tried to escape, and were often quickly recaptured and brutally punished. Those who survived the march were restrained in coastal holding pens and warehouses in slave shipping ports such as Elmina, Ghana, or Gorée, Senegal. They were held there until European traders arrived by ship.
restrain—(rih strayn) v. to keep under control; to keep from action
Aboard the “Floating Coffins”
Once purchased, Africans were packed below the decks of slave ships, usually in chains. Hundreds of men, women, and children were crammed into a single vessel for voyages that lasted from three weeks to three months. The ships faced many perils, including storms at sea, raids by pirate ships, and mutinies, or revolts, by the captives.
Disease was the biggest threat to the lives of the captives and the profit of the merchants. Of the slaves who died, most died of dysentery. Many died of smallpox. Many others died from apparently no disease at all. Whatever the cause, slave ships became “floating coffins” on which up to half the Africans on board died from disease or brutal mistreatment.
Some enslaved Africans resisted, and others tried to seize control of the ship and return to Africa. Suicide, however, was more common than mutiny. Many Africans believed that in death they would be returned to their home countries. So they hanged themselves, starved themselves, or leapt overboard.
Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade
The slave trade brought enormous wealth to merchants and traders, and provided the labor that helped profitable colonial economies grow. Yet the impact on Africans was devastating. African states and societies were torn apart. The lives of individual Africans were either cut short or forever brutalized.
Historians still debate the number of Africans who were directly involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In the 1500s, they estimate about 2,000 enslaved Africans were sent to the Americas each year. In the 1780s, when the slave trade was at its peak, that number approached 80,000 a year. By the mid-1800s, when the overseas slave trade was finally stopped, an estimated 11 million enslaved Africans had reached the Americas. Another 2 million probably died under the brutal conditions of the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas.
William Cowper wrote the following poem in the 1700s. How does he use irony to express his disapproval of the slave trade?
“I own I am shocked at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures and groans,
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?”